What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral which, commercially, comes in the form of white,
blue or brown asbestos. The types are differentiated by the length of their fibres.
The material itself gave its name to the town of Asbestos in Quebec, Canada,
home of the world’s largest asbestos mine.
What was it used for? Asbestos was often used as a fire retardant building material, so people in the
building, construction and central heating trades as well as miners, ship builders
and factory workers were exposed to it.
What’s the problem with it?
Although Asbestos mining has been carried out for over 2000 years, it was not
until the turn of the 20
th Century that its disease causing properties became
apparent, and only in the last 20 years or so that the scale of the damage has
begun to emerge.
Exposure to asbestos can cause a number health problems, and they all arise as
a result of something that each of us does every day, all day, without even
thinking about it – simply breathing!
What are the diseases caused by it?
Breathing in asbestos fibres can cause:
? Asbestosis* (pneumoconiosis due to asbestos dust)
- Pneumoconiosis is a general term for a disease which results from
inhaling dust into the lungs and therefore can result from exposure
to other substances such as silica.
- Patient may not show any symptoms at all to begin with as the
disease takes years to develop (usually at least 10 years), but in
the later stages of the disease can exhibit various symptoms such
as a dry cough, or breathlessness because the lungs cannot expand
- There is no specific treatment for this disease and it can increase
the risk of lung cancer and/or result in respiratory failure.
? Lung Cancer* (the most commonly known disease)
- Asbestos fibres are carcinogens.
- Patient shows various chest related symptoms.
- Lung cancer can also be caused by smoking and there is no way of
knowing for sure which has caused the lung cancer.
- As with most cancers if the diagnosis is made early enough the
patient may be cured. However, generally the disease has poor
prospects of recovery.
- A highly malignant form of cancer.
- Surprisingly the total exposure to asbestos fibres need not be great;
breathing in just one fibre can bring on the disease.
- Fibres can be present in the lungs for 40 years before a patient will
show any symptoms. The tumour causes chest pain, shortness of
breath, tiredness and loss of appetite.
- There is no effective cure so patients can only be given palliative
care to ease their symptoms and make them comfortable.
- The average survival period is 1 year from diagnosis.
- Although rare at present (about 2,000 people die from it each year),
numbers are expected to rise as symptoms start to develop in
people who were exposed to asbestos dust in the 1960s to 1980s.
- Compensation awards for mesothelioma can be substantial.
? Non-malignant pleural diseases
- Pleural plaques – the patient will show no symptoms and the
plaques will not become malignant hence the Court of Appeal’s
recent decision to not allow claims for this disease (please see
related article on this website).
- Benign pleural effusions – patient will show symptoms though there
are some treatments available.
- Diffuse Pleural thickening* – patient can suffer significant disability
but can also be assisted with surgery.
What should I do?
If you think you were exposed to asbestos during your working life and believe
you are exhibiting any of the above symptoms or have any of the above diseases
you should first see your GP for an accurate diagnosis. If the diagnosis is positive,
and you think that your symptoms/illness are work related, then contact a
member of our specialist Industrial Disease team immediately to see if you have
the right to claim for compensation against your employer(s).
Note: Some of the diseases listed above are marked with an asterisk (*). These
diseases, if caused by exposure to asbestos, may mean you are eligible to claim
Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit. Our specialist Industrial Disease team can
give you advice on eligibility for Welfare Benefits too.